Following a mail truck after he gets seriously lost in rural Washington state, Kevin finds himself in a tiny, remote town that has no phone service, no Internet, no regular mail service (the mail truck is private), and a population of 32. But it does have paved roads, a Town Hall that could service a city of 30,000, a vegetarian cafe, a tasteful bar, a resident artist, and a Montessori school. And right outside the grand Town Hall is a six-foot statue of a marmot.
There are a dozen nicely-kept houses but even more that have fallen into ruins. One burned-out church and another that has a foundation but no walls. A graveyard with century-old headstones and some only a few years old. When Kevin stumbles into the cafe for lunch, Elizabeth, the young woman who owns it, immediately vouches for him to the suspicious locals, even though they’ve never met.
The mysteries keep piling up. An austere old woman who serves as town manager seems to know everything about everyone, including Kevin. Even without phones news travels faster than Kevin can run. The school has a rocket ship in its playground. There aren’t enough people in the town to support a single business, but half a dozen services are thriving. Elizabeth, who some claim was a fairy child, appears to be able to read Kevin’s mind.
It’s not until Kevin decides to stay and accepts the figurehead job as mayor, replacing the man who died six months ago, that he learns that the town IS magical -- but not in the way he’d thought. The town manager reveals her secrets and the town’s history, the cafe owner and the new mayor fall in love, and the magic spark is handed off from person to person until Kevin and his new wife fulfill their destiny in the town of Kill Marmot.
There was a wide shoulder ahead. Kevin Calenda pulled his Subaru wagon over onto it and switched off the engine. He rubbed his eyes; he could feel a massive headache coming on.
Stepping out of the car was like walking into an oven. Despite the shade of the Douglas Firs that crowded the narrow road, it was hot and so dry he could feel his skin threatening to crack. It was early afternoon in mid-August, but this was ridiculous. When he’d left Portland this morning the projected high had been 72; this felt like 90.
Kevin did a few stretches before reaching back into the car to grab his notebook. It hadn’t sounded that hard when the young woman at the Inn of the White Salmon—more of a girl, really—had given him the directions. He had tried not to let the religious tattoos, nose and eyebrow piercings, and spiky violet-and-black hair sway him, but on reflection he believed he had made a mistake to trust someone who looked like a devout mynah bird.
His notes were clear; his handwriting had always been excellent, and his speedwriting was just as legible, to him at least. He was accustomed to transcribing quotes perfectly, word for word. He read, “You’ve gone the wrong way if you see Bethel Congregational on the left, New Beginnings on the right, and Our Savior on the left. Turn right from our parking lot. You’ll see the Mormons on the right, then Grace Baptist on the left. The road will merge with 141A, then after a while you’ll pass Husum Church of God on the left, and Mt. Adams Baptist on the right. Bear left in Trout Lake, then pass the Presbyterian Church on the right. After that it’s easy, just look for Forest Road 88 then 8810 and it will lead you right to it.”
He’d just wanted to do one last hike before leaving the Northwest, and a friend had recommended Sleeping Beauty. All of his hiking books had gone to friends or the Goodwill, so he had to rely on vague—or precise but wrong—directions from strangers. As a result he had made several bad turns and found himself on the outskirts of nowhere three times. He checked his watch: 12:45. He’d hoped to be on the trail almost an hour ago.
There was no traffic at all on this road. He was pretty sure he was back on 141, but he hadn’t seen a sign for a while. He did a few more stretches and got back in his car, deciding to give it fifteen more minutes before giving up.
But it didn’t take that long. The view suddenly opened up, revealing Mt. Adams in all its glory, the snow pack completely melted but a few glaciers still clinging to the slopes. A few minutes later he entered the town of Trout Lake, which was more like a crossroads than any real town he’d ever seen. The road curved to the left, then he passed the Presbyterian Church, just as the mynah bird had said he would.
“Thank you, Jesus,” he shouted at the top of his lungs. He felt safe doing that only because his windows were rolled up and the AC was on max. Otherwise, given the run-down rustic look of things around here, he might have been in danger from a random blasphemy-avenging shotgun blast.
Because he was so late, and the mynah had turned out to be right in the end, he didn’t even consider pulling in to the Forest Service ranger station and asking for real directions. He was just looking for road 88, that should be simple enough.
An hour later Kevin pulled off the road again. The threatening headache had receded with the echoes of his blasphemy, but it was coming back full force now. There was no Road 88. There had probably never been a Road 88. He’d be willing to bet that they’d stopped at Road 66. After realizing that he was lost again, he’d turned back and driven more slowly. He hadn’t reached the ranger station yet—if it was even still there—but he’d seen plenty of Forest Service road signs, just not an 8810, an 88, or even a lowly 8.
He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. It was getting too late to safely start a hike. He was going to have to give up.
That’s when he heard a car pass him, going away from Trout Lake, in the direction he’d been searching before he turned around. He opened his eyes and looked in the rearview mirror. It was a mail truck. If anyone could find a way out of this maze, he thought, it would be a mail carrier. So he did a quick U-turn and followed the truck.
He’d thought perhaps the carrier would stop at a roadside mailbox, and he could pull up beside him and ask for directions, but there were no roadside mailboxes on this stretch. So he kept following. After a short while they turned onto what looked like a two-lane gravel driveway, but it had a sign proclaiming it to be Trout Lake Creek Road. He hadn’t noticed this before, he’d been so intent on finding fictitious numbered roads. But then a new sign said they were on Road 88. The mynah had neglected to mention that the road had a name as well as a number.
Then—it took his breath away—they passed Road 8810, which was the route to Sleeping Beauty, but after a slight hesitation Kevin kept following the mail truck. He wasn’t sure why, except that he knew it was too late to start out. And he was hungry. They crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, which he thought was cool; he’d never hiked that one but he’d often thought he would like to. The truck turned left onto 8871, so Kevin followed it.
driveway. He stayed far enough back so that he wouldn’t be blinded by the dust. After another mile or so the truck turned left again. When Kevin reached that spot, he saw a handmade but handsome sign proclaiming Jack Rd. He was feeling a tingling in his fingers, as though he were in a horror movie and had just walked down—alone—into an unlighted basement looking for a weapon to fight the zombies. But he took the turn.
Then he suddenly realized that, unlike the Forest Service roads, Jack Road, while narrow, was paved.
Another left, another handmade sign, this one saying Fish Lk. St., which was also paved. He drove past a small lake on his left, evidently Fish Lake, and glanced back to the right just in time to see a roadside welcome sign, but all he had time to read was “Population 32.” After a few more curves he found himself in another town, even smaller than Trout Lake.
“What is a town doing out here in the middle of the woods?” he said aloud.
There were a dozen or so decrepit houses, most of them collapsed in on themselves, but another dozen that were in good repair, with small gardens, freshly-painted siding, and lawn decorations. At the first intersection in town he saw a small cafe and some kind of shop on catty-corners, then he passed another that was surrounded by tidy little cottages, and then the mail truck stopped in front of a modern stone civic building, with Town Hall carved into the marble above the portico and clearly-marked straight-in parking spaces in front. There were some beautiful, tall firs across the street from the hall that looked like overgrown Christmas trees.
Kevin parked his car and got out—and felt his mouth flop open. On a tall stone plinth in front of the handsome Town Hall building was a six-foot high bronze statue of an animal. Maybe a beaver. Kevin walked up and read the plaque on the base. It said simply, “The Marmot.”